A Closer Look: Ian Roberts
Superintendent, Des Moines Public Schools
Ian Roberts has hit the ground running in his first two months on the job as superintendent of Des Moines Public Schools.
He hasn’t really had much choice. The state’s largest school district is preparing to open its new, multipurpose, 4,000-seat Mediacom Stadium next month in collaboration with Drake University. It will be the home field for all five traditional high schools.
Des Moines, like other districts, is adapting to an array of new laws that took effect this year. Families are for the first time using state-funded education savings accounts to attend private schools. The state established new rules for how topics related to sexual orientation and gender identity can be brought up at school and restricted depictions of sex acts in school libraries. And, not least, enrollment that dipped by over 2,000 students from 2016 to 2022 has district leaders studying demographics, developing marketing plans and preparing strategies for the future.
Roberts said he and his colleagues have big ambitions: “We are committed to being the school system and school district of choice for every parent and every family and every student in the Des Moines community.” In the short term, he’s worked on getting to know the Des Moines trail system and building bridges with parents, politicians, business figures and other people in the community.
Roberts was most recently superintendent at a Pennsylvania school district. He is a 2000 Olympian in track and field, a former special education teacher, and a hunter. Roberts said he is looking forward to Iowa’s deer season. “Folks who are part of my hunting community in Pennsylvania have shared that Iowa has some of the more coveted deer hunting,” he said.
Roberts spoke with the Business Record just before school started in August.
AT A GLANCE
Hometown: Brooklyn, N.Y.
Education: Bachelor’s, Coppin State University; master’s, St. John’s University and Georgetown University; doctorate in urban educational leadership, Trident University.
Hobbies: Running, hunting, reading, writing.
This Q&A has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
How can public-private partnerships benefit your students? What is Des Moines doing that you would like to continue? And what would you like to add to that?
Public-private partnerships with the school system are an absolute necessity. We have come to recognize for a very long time in public education that, while we have this desire to have our students matriculate through an academically rigorous program and eventually move on to a post-secondary education at an institution of higher learning, the data tells us that we have a significant number of our students, in many instances more than 25% or 30% of our students, who are not necessarily interested immediately after graduation in an institution of higher learning. They want to pursue the career path or career track. They’re interested in joining the workforce immediately.
Having that knowledge, I think the benefit of those partnerships with businesses or other public or even private entities is one where they can come in and provide offerings and opportunities and thought partnership around what is necessary to have a level of preparedness for students to be successful after graduation. Oftentimes, when we school systems think of public support and partnership, we tend to think about the financial resources that can be offered. While those are important, I think equally as important are opportunities for students to be able to have internships, for students to be able to engage in conversations with and learn from individuals who have expertise in the areas or career path that they are interested in. And so, it is, based on having sort of that knowledge, my philosophical approach for us to continue to really create spaces to strengthen the partnership that Des Moines Public Schools has with members of the business community and to build on those.
I want to expand even more opportunities for individuals to come in and partner with the team and to offer our young people a lot more opportunities. There has to be a symbiotic relationship between Des Moines Public Schools and our private-industry folks. Those relationships are characterized by mutualism. We know that those individuals and organizations that we are partnering with will see and have an experience of mutual benefit by having our students eventually become gainfully employed, by having a lot of proud DMPS alums staying locally, staying at home and then offering their expertise to these communities in schools.
As I think about another part of the question, what do I want to sort of focus a lot on going into next year? It’s really looking at two different areas. The first is making sure that we are continuing to serve as ambassadors of Des Moines Public Schools and marketing why Des Moines Public Schools is on the verge of an education revolution, given the work that we’re doing right now. Now we are committed to being the school system and school district of choice for every parent and every family and every student in the Des Moines community. Secondly, and equally as important for me, is I want to make sure that every single young person who knocks on the doors of our schools, 31,000 students, and all the adults – there are 5,000 of them who serve our students – feel seen, heard and supported each and every day, regardless of their lived experiences, regardless of their identity. I want to make sure that they understand that we value who they are.
What do American schools do right with vocational training, and how can they be better in terms of vocational training?
I think one thing that American schools are doing right is the recognition that vocational training is pretty much equally as important as the preparation and preparedness and supports around a [college-bound] education. One area in which we can get better is to make sure that, in our marketing plans, and our marketing strategy, and our curriculum, and instructional practices, that we are equally as committed to highlighting the benefits and the importance of vocational training in the same manner that we tend to advertise college.
The district has been losing students. When will you have a better idea of the consequences in terms of potentially losing buildings? What does that look like?
It’s a longer-term decision point for us. We have already started to take action to make sure that we are being proactive in anticipation of possible enrollment loss. This became even more of a priority for us during the height of COVID, where what we experienced is no different from what a number of school systems across the country experienced. So that is as a result of COVID we’ve seen a decline in enrollment for a variety of reasons. A couple of actions we’ve already taken: one, a demographic study that has been done and will continue to be reviewed and revisited so we can look at patterns and trends that have caused students to leave the district. And then the second is looking at creating a robust strategic branding and marketing plan that will make Des Moines Public Schools an enticing consideration for parents, families and students. There’s a little bit of a longer runway around really making decisions around enrollment and the possibility of “What are we going to do if enrollment drops? Do we have to make any decisions around some of our buildings?” We’re not quite there yet, but we are being proactive.
Say a family comes to you and says they are thinking about applying for an ESA, an educational savings account, to move from DMPS to a private school. What would you tell them?
My approach would be grounded in a couple of questions as well as my offering to the family. The first response to that family will be to ask them, why? Why are they not considering the Des Moines Public Schools as the destination for their child’s pre-K through 12 education? I will ask them, what opportunities do they believe that they will get in a different school setting, a different education arena, that they will not receive here in the Des Moines Public Schools? And then … what I would share with them is a level of encouragement, to really and seriously consider enrolling their child in Des Moines Public Schools, just because of what we’re offering, because of all of the amazing things that are happening in our classrooms, because of the solid and strong pedagogical practices that are going to be offered by our teachers in school year 2023-24 and beyond. I’m certainly willing and ready to look any parent in the eye and to let them know that the work that will happen in the school system over the next several years in many ways will offer some unprecedented and improved instructional and operational delivery models. That’s the commitment.
Even in my short time here in Des Moines Public Schools, the pride that I have heard in the voices of so many of our alumni, many of whom are successful business owners, successful politicians here in the Des Moines community – I certainly want them to think about and even reach out to some of those individuals to hear about the experiences they’ve had. My desire is to get Des Moines Public Schools back to this place where we are truly the pride of the Des Moines community.
How do you do that?
Our approach has to be grounded in three things. One, make sure that the quality of education that we are providing our students is second to none; [second], to make sure that we are recruiting, developing and training a cadre of teachers and leaders better than any other school system, who certainly can serve as competition for us. And thirdly, to make sure that we are truly opening up the doors and creating spaces for authentic and empathetic partnerships with our parents in the community. I want to make sure that every single parent understands that they can come and engage with any person who works at the school system, including the superintendent, and engage with us in conversations about what their needs are, provide us with the kind of feedback that is necessary for us to really meet each and every one of their needs, and provide them with support. It sounds overly simplistic in terms of the approach, but that’s what we have to do and to get better at doing it every day.
What are your favorite parts of Des Moines so far?
My favorite part of Des Moines has to be the trails and the lakes. I have spent a lot of time jogging or riding on the trails. I’m an avid writer. So I’ve done a lot of writing, a lot of publishing. And so I’ve also spent a lot of time doing some writing, even sitting at some of the lakes, either early mornings or late evenings, getting some reading and some writing in.
What are some differences between Pennsylvania and Iowa in terms of public education, both in terms of challenges and just general support?
I see more similarities than I see differences. Educators with whom I have worked all value the public education arena, recognizing that public education is a game changer for any student that we serve, and in many instances, some students, this is the only choice or option for them.
Another similarity that I can think of is the fact that, at least in recent years, educators in both states have come to realize that post-COVID, the pre-K-12 education arena has become incredibly politicized. And so what we have been focused on in both places, and certainly we’ll continue to do so, is to make sure that we are serving essentially as the offensive line in the education arena; that is, we ought to remain committed to protecting and insulating our students, our teachers and staff, from any actions that can serve as an impediment or get in the way of the work that they are intended to do. And to do so in a manner that does not necessarily create an us-versus-them kind of dynamic, but to continue to approach these challenges with a spirit of collaboration. Because I think, ultimately, all of the adults want to make decisions that are in the best interest of children, and that’s what we want to encourage them to do.
Are the challenges for a teacher today the same as when you were in the classroom?
What has changed? I would say three things, but let me sort of punctuate two. The first is, today, we are tasked with preparing our students and children for a future that even we cannot envision. What has changed is the fact that, while, historically, we have prepared students for a post-secondary career, I think what we have to start to think about now is, how do we prepare students for a post-secondary lifestyle? Because it’s more than just a career for them, right? Students are making lots of decisions about what kind of lifestyle they want to live, and we have to be nimble enough to be responsive to those student needs.
Another major change is the fact that advancements in technology tend to become obsolete within a very short window of time. In many instances, we’re talking about three months, six months, where new inventions, new technological advancements, become obsolete very quickly. ChatGPT … do we want to, as educators in the pre-K-12 arena now, do we fight a battle of trying to create laws, policies and admin regulations to sort of discourage our students from using ChatGPT and other technological advancements, or do we embrace it by saying, “Look, we have to find a way to infuse and insert these technological advancements into our curriculum and our pedagogical practices.” I believe it’s imprudent for us to fight and oppose it. We have to find ways to infuse it and insert it into the work that we’re doing.
You were a special education teacher, correct? Does that inform your approach as an administrator at all?
It does, in a significant way. As a special education teacher, I demonstrated that I had this propensity to recognize that students always bring a diverse set of learning styles to the classroom – also recognizing that every single student who came into the classrooms where I taught were coming in with a set of needs that many of their peers or adults did not understand, could not relate to and wouldn’t resonate with them. It really required and took a special set of training, and more importantly, an empathetic approach to teaching, in order for us to be positively impactful by each of those students. And it informs and has informed every leadership position in education that I have participated in, enrolled in, and even as I think about how will that inform the work I do in Des Moines Public Schools, where 15% of our student population are special education students – it means that I’m going to continue to review, look at and work collaboratively with our district leaders, our curriculum and instruction team, to improve practices for those students, because they are really considered a marginalized population, and I want to make sure that they are getting everything that they need in order for them to become their best selves.
You’ve talked about being excited to work alongside political leaders who are passionate about quality education. How do you navigate differing ideas of what a quality education entails?
That’s what makes for a really robust conversation that ultimately can get us to the outcomes that meet student needs. When we come to the table with a different philosophical approach, our differences make us much stronger, as opposed to some people’s belief that it can certainly either weaken or create a combative and cantankerous sort of arena. I believe that when we have philosophical and even ideological differences, and we sit at a table and start to talk about the one common denominator – and that is children, and the quality of education we want children to have – we ultimately have to walk away from those spaces, away from the table, away from the conference room, at least align in a single array, that is: Will the decisions that we are making have a positive and perpetual impact, indelible impact on the students that we’re serving? And that’s what it’s about. We do not have to walk into the conference room or sit at a table and the initial conversation be one where we are all tightly and strongly aligned philosophically. But I believe what is of utmost importance is that, by the time we leave that table, we should be aligned on what it will take for us to provide the highest quality of education for the children.
It seems to me like your job has a lot of separate parts. You’re an educator. You’re essentially the CEO of DMPS. You’re a community liaison. Just for starters, there’s just so many different moving parts. How is that reflected in how you spend your time?
I think it’s threefold for me. One, and I’m getting better at this each and every day, is prioritizing self-care. What it means for me is to take care of my spiritual, physical, and certainly my own emotional well-being. The second is to make sure that I’m anchoring my approach to this work where I am a continuous learner. I’m focused on continuous improvement and so I am a voracious reader and researcher. I spend a lot of time continuously looking at research and best practices around leadership and effective organizational excellence by looking and researching beyond the education arena. I tend to look at a lot of the best practices that are happening in politics, in business and in health care to bring some of those practices into the space. The third area – and not necessarily in this order – where I spend an inordinate amount of time is observing the practices that are happening in our school system to make sure that those individuals who we are serving are getting and receiving a quality education – and that is all of our students in pre-K through 12. I spent an inordinate amount of time thinking about what are the right strategic and tactical decisions that have to be made in order for them to get and receive a quality education every single day?
Your interview process with DMPS was pretty private. Did you feel like you got a good sense of the community and the district, and what was that process like?
I have experienced several high-level interviews. I have not been a part of such a thorough and robust process before. It became very clear to me early on in the process that the interview team, the members of the board, are not only a highly qualified group of individuals who are consummate professionals, but [also that] their investments in and commitment to this community, their investment in and commitment to the Des Moines Public Schools, really manifested itself in what they were asking for and expected of the leader of this – or the potential leader, at the time – of this organization, became very clear to me. I think the interview, structure and process truly served as an inspiration. Each time that I met with the board during the process, my excitement and enthusiasm and level of inspiration around becoming the leader of this district grew along the way.
We’ve had some changes in law regarding sexually explicit materials in public school libraries here in Iowa. Is Des Moines Public Schools currently in compliance with state law, in terms of inappropriate materials, particularly library books? What does that process look like going forward?
Our approach is threefold. We remain committed to being in compliance with state law. As superintendent, I will continuously encourage every member of the cabinet and certainly all of our leaders and teachers to make sure that we are modeling for students what it means to comply with state law. [Second], we have created two working groups at every level in the district, and the first group has been looking at and will continue to unpack, interpret and analyze this law in the most granular way and nuanced way to make sure that we remain in compliance. Then the second group is going to be focused on creating a set of guidelines and guardrails to offer to our adults, our teachers, leaders and staff, to make sure that we are really finding this healthy balance between being in compliance with the law without compromising the quality of education that we offer to our students.
Since time immemorial, we know that a quality education really consists of exposing students to diverse sets of conversations, to curriculum and instruction materials that really pushes them and challenges their own thinking, reality and mental model. And so we want to make sure that we are offering students and exposing them to really high-quality material regardless of what the law is. We want to make sure that we’re not compromising the education that you’re going to get.
What people from outside of the district have you been meeting with?
My onboarding has been nothing short of a warm and gracious welcome, and certainly inspiring, around the work. It bodes well to get me sort of acclimated to the community. I’ve already had a number of meetings; the board and I have met with many community partners, including members of the City Council. We have met with a number of individuals who are business or local business owners. We have met with members of the faith-based community. We certainly have had meetings with parents at every grade level, and these initial meetings are just that, right, the initial conversations, but my commitment is to build on these and have a lot of additional meetings with these various groups.
What skills did you learn as an athlete that helps you be the leader of the largest school district in Iowa?
There are three things that come to mind. The first is, there’s a level of discipline that I needed to develop as an athlete, to keep pushing even when times were challenging, even when there were falls, there were bruises, there were injuries; I had to keep pushing. The second is recognizing that competition is inevitable. Given our current reality, competition is inevitable. And then third is recognizing that we have to approach school leadership just like I did as an athlete, and that is setting goals, what some consider to be lofty goals, stretch goals, and having the right strategic approach to make sure that I’m moving steadily toward achieving those goals, regardless of what impediment comes my way, but being relentlessly focused on achieving the goals and desired outcomes.
What didn’t I ask you that I should have that you think is important for the community to know, whether that be about you personally, or about what you do professionally?
I think it’s important for – and as cliche as it sounds – for individuals and members of this community to know that I’m invested in providing the quality of leadership that will have Des Moines Public Schools looked at in a positive light, Des Moines Public Schools to be viewed as the pre-K-12 educational destination of choice. 100% of decisions that I make will always be anchored in the question of, is this best for students? … I am a leader who anchors my leadership orientation in what it means to be an empathetic leader. And that is, I value the lived experiences of every person who serves our students. Leading from this orientation certainly has had a lot of positive results: strong retention rates, high morale and a lot of enthusiasm amongst the adults we serve, because people want to make sure that they’re feeling seen, heard and supported. And that’s what I’m committed to doing here as superintendent of Des Moines Public Schools.